Phoenix ATSCO Nationals Preview

GOOD CHANCE ATSCO NATIONALS WINNERS WILL BE 1998 NHRA WINSTON CHAMPIONS PHOENIX -- Whoever wins the ATSCO Nationals, will win NHRA Winston championships. At least, that's what has happened the last two years. In 1996 and 1997,...


PHOENIX -- Whoever wins the ATSCO Nationals, will win NHRA Winston championships. At least, that's what has happened the last two years.

In 1996 and 1997, Phoenix was the only race where all three eventual champions won. Gary Scelzi in Top Fuel, John Force in Funny Car and Jim Yates in Pro Stock return to Firebird International Raceway as defending race winners and defending NHRA Winston champions.

The $1,549,310 ATSCO Nationals, Feb. 19-22, is the second race of the 22-event, $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series in 1998.

Arizona will rumble and rattle when 6,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars cover the quarter-mile track in less than five seconds and reach speeds of over 320 mph. The nitromethane-powered vehicles accelerate from 0 to 100 mph in less than one second.

Scelzi, from Fresno, Calif., made NHRA history last year by becoming the first rookie to win his first two races. At the ATSCO Nationals, he drove the Team Winston Dragster, owned and tuned by Alan Johnson, to a victory over Kenny Bernstein, from Lake Forest, Calif.

Bernstein, who has had a history of performing well at Firebird International Raceway, will be one of Scelzi's biggest challengers. He has won here twice--in 1991 and 1996--and has made it to the finals the last two years. In addition, Bernstein tested well at Firebird in mid-January, making a 320.20-mph pass.

Joe Amato and Cory McClenathan could also prove to be formidable opponents. Sixteen-year veteran Amato, from Exeter, Pa., will drive the Tenneco Automotive Dragster this season in seeking a record sixth Top Fuel title. Amato's final pass of 1997 was the quickest in NHRA history and capped a five-win season.

McClenathan, from Anaheim, Calif., had six wins last year in the McDonald's Dragster. He also was the first NHRA driver to break the 320 mph mark, a feat he accomplished at the Revell Nationals (Dallas) in October.

Larry Dixon, driver of the Miller Lite dragster, will be looking for his second straight win after opening with a victory at the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals.

Force has also been very successful at Firebird International Raceway in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, winning here the past four years (1994-97) and finishing runner-up in 1991. Force, from Yorba Linda, Calif., is seeking his eighth Winston championship in Funny Car and sixth in a row. Ron Capps, winner of the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., and Force teammate Tony Pedregon are also considered Funny Car favorites.

Yates dominated the Pro Stock field in 1997, plain and simple. In 1997, Yates led all NHRA professional drivers in wins (nine), final rounds (12), points (1,963) and elimination round wins (58). In addition, he was the No. 1 qualifier nine times.

Yates, from Alexandria, Va., will drive the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird and try to add a second win to his 1998 resume. Yates defeated young Jeg Couglin, Jr. at the Winternationals.


PHOENIX -- Jeg Coughlin Jr. is making one of the toughest professional categories in drag racing look easy.

Maybe it's just beginner's luck.

Maybe it's the combination of a talented driver behind the wheel of a well-prepared car.

Coughlin, who won his first NHRA Pro Stock event in only his second start, made his second NHRA final-round appearance in the category at the season opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals. That race was only his fourth career start.

The 27-year-old driver of the Jeg's Mail Order Oldsmobile Cutlass will try for his second career win and third final round at the 14th annual ATSCO Nationals, Feb. 19-22 at Firebird International Raceway. The $1,549,310 race is the second of the 22-event, $30-million Winston Drag Racing Series.

Coughlin is one of several drivers considered to be the new breed in NHRA Pro Stock racing. His sportsman resume is impressive. The Columbus, Ohio resident won 1997 NHRA national events in Competition, Super Stock and Super Gas before winning his first Pro Stock event in the Matco Tools Supernationals in late October. He became the first NHRA driver to win in four racing categories during one season.

He has already showed signs of being a contender for the 1998 NHRA Winston Pro Stock championship by posting a runner-up finish at the Winternationals. Two-time NHRA Winston champion Jim Yates won that event, showing that the veterans aren't going to let the youngsters totally have their way.

"We knew the kid would be tough, because he's real hungry," said Yates after the race. "I just don't think he knew how hungry we were. He's real strong on the tree, but we had enough power to have the advantage in the race."

Coughlin says without the necessary equipment it would be very difficult to compete at this level.

"My family has worked hard to put this team together and I'm fortunate to have a car that's capable of putting me in position to win races," Coughlin said. "NHRA Pro Stock is so tough. There's so many talented drivers with good equipment. In order to be competitive, you have to have the total package. If you don't, it will be a real struggle out there."

While young Coughlin gives his equipment much of the praise, engine builder Richard Maskin puts the situation into perspective.

"That kid has the makings to be one of the best drivers this class has ever seen," said Maskin, tuner for Jim Yates' 1996 NHRA Winston Championship team. "With so little seat time, he has all areas of the driving down, from burnouts, to reaction and hitting his shift points. He is one of the most complete drivers to come along in many years."

--New body style: Larry Morgan and Kurt Johnson debuted their new Chevrolet Camaro bodies at the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals. Johnson qualified, while Morgan missed the cut but still ran 6.998 seconds at 196.76 mph, which would have been good enough to qualify for this race one year ago.

"We're happy with the new body," said Morgan. "It feels good. It feels like a new Z28." Said Johnson: "The fans' reaction to the new Camaro body was fantastic. Having Chevrolet back in Pro Stock gives the category more flavor and variety. It's good for the sport."

--Not bad for a new car: Warren Johnson was pleased with his Winternationals effort, despite losing on a holeshot in the semi-finals to Jeg Coughlin, Jr.

"This is the best race car I've ever had, without a doubt," Johnson said. "We've only made seven runs with this new Firebird, and every run has been in the sixes. All in all, a semi-final round finish with a brand-new race car isn't a bad way to start a season."

--A new sponsor: It's official. George Marnell's Pontiac Firebird will wear Tenneco Automotive's race team colors for the 1998 NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series season.

"We are very excited to have George as part of the Tenneco Automotive team," said Jim DeRidder, manager of Tenneco Performance Heavy-Duty Brands. "George gives additional depth to our NHRA program and his association with Jim Yates should give an unbeatable one-two punch in Pro Stock."

Tenneco Automotive also sponsors Joe Amato's Top Fuel team.

--Schedule: Two rounds of professional category qualifying are scheduled for Feb. 20 at noon and 4:30 p.m. Pro qualifying continues on Feb. 21 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the last scheduled session. Final eliminations start at 11 a.m. Feb. 22.

--Tickets: Tickets are available for the ATSCO Nationals. Call Firebird International Raceway at (602) 268-0200 for ticket information.

--On TV: The Nashville Network will televise 90 minutes of final-round competition from the ATSCO Nationals at 5 p.m. (MST) Feb. 22.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Kenny Bernstein , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Larry Morgan , Cory McClenathan , George Marnell